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Southern Thunder brings experience and respect to the pow wow arena

PAWNEE, Okla. - For the drum group Southern Thunder, performing new and old Southern-style songs are a way of life, ingrained into the heart of the Pawnee Nation's tradition and culture.

Most of the singers in this 25-year-old drum group grew up singing, drumming and even dancing at pow wows.

''It's like the songs were in the big drum, and being Pawnee, we have this in our culture,'' said Herb Adson, the group's drum keeper.

For the first time ever, Southern Thunder will head to Washington, D.C., to serve as the Southern host drum at the National Powwow sponsored by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Aug. 10 - 12.

The soft-spoken Adson handles the business end of the group. He said unlike other drum groups, Southern Thunder has no lead singer. But Adson said, with humble reluctance, if a pow wow must list an official lead singer, then he would bear the title.

''Almost everyone in the group has the experience to lead a song,'' he said.

Adson, an enrolled member of the Pawnee tribe, said the pow wow committee invited the group to the National Powwow without any queries by any of the singers. Bygone are the days of Southern Thunder asking for permission to set up their drum at pow wows.

He credits their solid reputation as the reason for garnering invitations to large-scale events. ''We have a good reputation for being there on time and we don't drink or do drugs,'' he said.

Members of Southern Thunder follow a strict dress code. They wear button-up shirts and ironed slacks or jeans for a polished look. ''We represent our tribe whether we're at our hometown pow wow or out in Washington, D.C.,'' he said.

In mid-July, members of Southern Thunder made the trek down to Anadarko for a two-week visitation sponsored by the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes. The Pawnee and Wichita meet to exchange ceremonial gifts and visit with old friends. Each tribe alternates sponsoring the annual event.

Randy Reeder, Wichita and member of the longtime drum group Gray Horse, said individual members of Southern Thunder came out to sing, including Adson.

The gathering was more in line with Southern traditions, and how individual members come out to sing at the drum, instead of gathering as a more formal group.

''A lot of the Northern ways have rubbed off on Southern drum groups,'' he said.

But regardless of a drum group's philosophy on collaboration, song selection and etiquette, dancers count on drum groups to lift their spirits. ''We try to make them feel good,'' Adson said. ''That is why we sing, and that's what the older people taught us about our songs.''

The singers also represent the Kiowa, Caddo, Comanche, Sac and Fox, Osage, Shawnee and other surrounding Oklahoma tribal nations.

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Adson said he helped formed the group in 1992. There are about 45 men and women singers. He said unlike other drum groups, women singers are vital and inclusive to each performance. ''We really count on our women singers,'' he said.

And the women singers draw on the support of founding member Georgia Noble, along with other longtime ''lady singers.'' Noble started singing as a young girl and said that in the Pawnee tradition, women are there to support the men in the Southern style of singing.

''We are there to try and accomplish what the men are trying to do,'' she said. ''We have to work hard and on schedule.''

The dress standard applies to the ladies as well, and ''you dress like you're going to church,'' Noble said.

She encourages the younger Native generation to get involved with drumming and singing to help perpetuate their culture.

The experiences within the drum circle are spiritual and profoundly life changing.

''Stand behind this drum, and you're going to meet a lot of nice people, and travel to a lot of different places,'' she said. ''We've seen people physically unable to move, tap a foot or hand and come down a put tobacco on our drum.

''It's all because of this drum, and it's real humbling,'' she added.

Over the last several years, younger singers have stepped up to the plate and this has enabled seasoned members to spend more time with family. But the younger generation continues to call on their teachers for inspiration and participation.

Surprisingly, Southern Thunder no longer practices together, yet somehow manages to pick up and perform with the precision expected of the best drum groups in the nation.

They are close-knit and often sing together at local pow wows, which gives them plenty of practice, Adson said.

These seasoned veterans have released seven CDs under the Indian House Records label.

As for their repertoire of seemingly endless songs, members have created about half of the songs and the rest are from the tribe. They even exchange songs with other tribes.

Noble said for the singers to memorize hundreds of songs without writing them down is truly a ''God-given gift.''

Both Adson and Noble said the drum brings the families and extended families together, and makes family out of friends. Prior to each performance, Noble said, the group prays together and burns cedar. They ask the Creator to help them have a safe journey and good performance.

''At one time these drums were living creatures,'' she said. ''What we're looking for is that holy spirit.''